Color and the Size of Light

What is color, and what does it mean for an object to have a specific color? Well, color comes from the fact that light can have different sizes, the way objects reflect that light, and the way our eyes can see it.

Light is made up of these tiny packets of energy, photons, which travel as waves that can move through air or space. And there’s a distance between the peaks of the waves, the same way there would be for waves in water, which is the size of the light. Light can have a whole range of different sizes, so the microwaves that you use to cook food or the radio waves that carry sound through the air are both different sizes of light. But there’s a special range of light, the visible range, which contains the sizes of light that our eyes can detect.

wavelength_size

So in the visible range, we have shorter lengths of light, which our eyes see as more blue, and longer lengths of light, which our eyes see as more red. In between, you have the full rainbow, which has all the colors we can see. The sun shines light on us with the whole range of sizes, but different objects will reflect different sizes or colors back at us. So an orange is absorbing most visible light but reflecting orange light, and then our eye detects that light and our brain tells us it’s orange.

But we need special cells in our eyes to detect color. Most people have three kinds of color-detecting cells, called cones, that pick up blue, green, or yellow light. From these three colors, our brain puts together the rest of the rainbow, like an artist does when mixing paint. People who have fewer or more kinds of cones will perceive color differently, maybe being color-blind or seeing even more colors than average, even though the light itself is the same!

If you want to know more, we have some nice posts in the archives about visible light and why the sky is blue.

Bright Club Dublin

Awhile back I was over in London, to give a talk at the Institute of Physics and to give a monologue about science for a Project2 improv show. At both places I found myself chatting to audience members afterward about my passion for comedy as well as physics, and in both places people said, ‘So you know about Bright Club, right?’

I had never heard of it before, but as soon as I learned about the format—academic researchers give stand-up comedy style sets about their work, alongside comedians and musicians—I knew I wanted to bring it to Dublin. It sounded like a really fun type of variety night to put on, entertaining and thought-provoking and dipping in to all sorts of interesting ideas. Plus for the academics, I loved the idea of public engagement that uses humour, and they receive training to develop a set with real jokes that may be massively different from anything they’ve done before. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough, but everything is funny if you look at it the right way. So I wrote to Steve Cross, who came up with the idea and ran it in London, and he kindly gave his advice and his blessing for me to start a Bright Club in Dublin.

Before the first event, I will admit that I had some difficulty getting people to agree to do Bright Club. Academics would say, “wait, I have to be funny?” Comedians would say, “wait, is the audience going to be all academics?” We sat down to do the speaker training, and an alarming fraction of the room gave their reason for being there as “Jessamyn twisted my arm!” And I had a nagging fear that I was designing the perfect variety night for me, but maybe other people would want something different… I wanted people from across physical science, social science, and humanities, but maybe an audience would prefer strictly science or strictly art, so was anyone else actually going to turn up? Fortunately they did, the first event was a splendid success, and it got a lot easier to fill lineups for Bright Club once I could point to past shows, and past speakers who’d had a great time. While I could still reach out to my networks in academia and comedy, people were now coming to me to ask to be in Bright Club!

Photo courtesy Sandra Duffy.

I was also fortunate that the outreach office of the institute I work in, AMBER, agreed to help fund the early events. They took a chance on a crazy idea I brought to them, and it helped the thing get off the ground. Soon conferences like Sci:Com and the Society for Applied Microbiology were asking for Bright Clubs with their events. And now, I am delighted to have Science Foundation Ireland onboard as a sponsor alongside AMBER, which has enabled me to broaden the team of people involved in making Bright Club great.

Humour is a great way to engage with complex subjects—how many people watch The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight or Weekly Wipe instead of straight news shows? But the bottom line is, Bright Club is fun to be at and a joy to MC and run. If you’re in Dublin, you can swing by our next show on January 29th! And if you’re somewhere else, we’ll be putting videos online soon, or you can always follow us on facebook and twitter.

Why do public engagement? Diamond Nine activity

This week I had the pleasure of attending the BIG ‘How to train researchers’ event at Newcastle University. It was an excellent and thought-provoking day and I took away a lot of useful tidbits and ideas.

As our focus was on improving how we support researchers to do public engagement one of my favourite sessions was the ‘activities circus’ where we were able to visit various brave souls who had activities or exercises they have tried and tested for our perusal. One of the ones I enjoyed was the ‘Diamond Nine’ of public engagement – a hands-on tool for facilitating discussion around researchers’ reasons for doing public engagement.

I was so inspired I’m incorporating it into my next training session; I’m looking forward to finding out what the researchers prioritise and hoping that the conversations will spur some introspection on their part!

I’ve included a print-out of the activity and instructions below – if you give it a try let me know what you think!

PDF: Why Do Public Engagement Diamond Nine

The Best Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

The man in the audience was shifty-eyed. I thought my talk about swamp-dwelling leeches, while slightly gruesome, had been going well but he seemed to have other things on his mind. I liked enthusing people about the diversity and creative adaptations of the species that made the swamp their home. I finished up, eliciting the usual ‘eww’s and ‘cool’s, and my audience crowded around the table to see the artifacts I had brought along. The alligator skull was a perennial favourite, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse. The shifty-eyed man remained, however, along with a friend. He approached.

“Excuse me, I was just wondering… is there such thing as a real Pokémon?”

“I’m sorry?” I got a lot of strange and interesting questions working as an education assistant at a zoo, but that one was new to me. “A what?”

“A real live Pokémon. You know, like in the game.”

“I… er…” Working in outreach makes you good at thinking on your toes, and I’m happy to say I didn’t stare at him in bemusement for more than a second. Maybe two. “You know, it’s certainly not something I’ve heard of existing in the real world.”

“But aren’t you a zoologist? Don’t you know about things like this?”

“I do, but I’ve never heard of a real live Pokémon. I don’t know if such a thing exists.”

“Well,” he said, eyes darting from side to side before he leaned closer, “I think it does, because I was listening to the news earlier and they said Paris Hilton had been bitten by some sort of Pokémon. So I just wondered if you knew about that.”

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” I said, quite honestly. “But that’s interesting. I’ll have to go look it up!”

He seemed satisfied at this even if I couldn’t confirm for certain, and left not long after. After sharing the story with some coworkers we decided we definitely had to look up what had befallen Paris Hilton.

It turns out she had been bitten by her pet kinkajou. I suppose it does sound an awful lot like Pikachu…

Psychologists highlight academic terms to avoid

Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases

Six decades ago, two prominent psychiatrists bemoaned the tendency of writers to use “jargon to blur implausible concepts and to convey the impression that something real is being disclosed” (Cleckley and Thigpen, 1955, p. 335). We hope that our article offers a friendly, albeit greatly belated, corrective in this regard.

Ignite: Entropy

How would you explain a scientific concept in five minutes? Would it help to have slides? What if the slides automatically advance?

This is the concept behind Ignite talks, which are held at volunteer-organized events around the world. Explaining any concept clearly and simply is a challenge, but the strict timing of Ignite talks is especially tricky! I was fortunate enough to be asked to give one last year for the Science Gallery, and since they’ve now put video online I thought I would share it with you all here:

I spoke about entropy, which is an old favorite topic on this blog. And the Science Gallery has quite a few other Ignite talks online for you to peruse. But I think we’d all do well to try to follow the Ignite motto: “Enlighten us, but make it quick!”

What science communicators can learn from #ThatDress

If you were on Twitter, Facebook, or any type of social media last night you were probably inundated with one of two things: the live llama chase in Arizona or #ThatDress. As fascinating as I find camelids, I’m going to talk about the more polarising of the two memes.

that dress

So if you haven’t seen it, there it is. What colour is it? Families, classrooms, and friends feeds are divided on the answer, and it’s sent countless people onto the Google results page for colourblindness. Various experts have weighed in with their opinions and technology has been rolled out to tweak, correct, and perfect the picture. Already there are comprehensive scientific articles and videos about why we perceive the colours differently and the fascinating subject of how humans process and interpret light hitting the back of our eyeballs.

What I find interesting about the phenomenon is the completely organic way it came about, and how a few smart cookies jumped on it to do some science communication. The original post went up on Twitter and within hours it was circulating around the world, drawing comments and creating debates among friends and strangers alike. ‘Experts’ (who have now been proven wrong) shared their opinions and amateurs griped and argued in the comments section of various articles. So what made this such a widely-spread discussion?

Firstly and most importantly, I think it was because it was something everyone could have an opinion of. If you could see the picture, you could form an opinion (based on what the rods and cones in your eyes told you), and that was all you needed to join the fray. Experiences that relate to inherent human perception are great jumping-off points for science communication because they are shared among many backgrounds and profiles. There’s a reason sex, death and food are common popular science subjects – they’re rather unavoidable topics and ones we all share!

Secondly, the potential opinions were so different from one another. Blue and black or white and gold are quite distinct, hardly the difference between ‘is this reddish-pink or pinkish-red?’. Once you stated your opinion you were firmly in one camp or another, and you needed no prior knowledge or expertise to back it up. The debate was accessible, something everyone felt comfortable taking part in. Sometimes science engagement can require a level of knowledge of a subject that is off-putting to non-experts. #ThatDress has no such problem.

So what can we learn from this? I’d say it’s the fact that the most gripping science communication is relatable, approachable, and adaptable. It needs to have a topic that interests people, that relates to experiences or knowledge they already have. It needs to be something they feel comfortable forming opinions and talking about (engagement is a two-way street, after all, and a conversation is far better than a lecture!). And most importantly, it needs to keep its finger on the popular pulse, ready to jump on the zeitgeist of the moment. Sure, a sustained campaign of building interest is important, but there’s nothing like hooking into a meme to reach millions of people who might otherwise not have time for a bit of science communication.